William S. Burroughs: A Life

William Burroughs, adjusting glasses in Tangier (cropped). ©Allen Ginsberg LLC, 2013. Creative Commons.

What follows is an extended review of Barry Miles’s biography: William S. Burroughs: A Life (American title: Call Me Burroughs: A Life), which was published in February 2014 to mark the centenary of Burroughs’s birth. The review first appeared in the Psychedelic Press magazine Vol IV 2014, and has never before been online. It is reprinted now because of its in-depth quality and the fact it provides a whistle-stop tour of Burroughs’s life through the lens of Barry Miles’s updated facts.


Barry Miles is no stranger to writing about William Burroughs or the wider Beat scene. He had known Burroughs and been part of his circle since the mid-1960s, when Burroughs lived in London, and has catalogued his work, collaborated with others on restored texts of his novels and has written a portrait of Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible, which for many years has served as the standard primer or introduction to the life and work of the man. Miles has also penned biographies of Kerouac and Ginsberg and other works related to the Beats, such as The Beat Hotel. He therefore seems ideally equipped to write this new definitive biography of Burroughs, published to coincide with the centenary of the author’s birth in 1914.

As he tells us in the introduction, Miles had a hand in the making of the myth of Burroughs, a phenomenon which has now become so powerful that it has ensured Burroughs a place as a character in history independent of his place in the hall of great writers. It was in 1984 that Miles discovered a lost Burroughs manuscript, Interzone, which together with another from the past that he’d previously uncovered was instrumental in getting Burroughs a new publishing deal. That other manuscript was Queer, Burroughs’ second novel, written in the early ’50s but never published at that time. In the ’85 edition Burroughs supplied a short introduction, a few pages of autobiographical background that were to prove seminal in establishing the Burroughs ‘myth’.

He revealed that the events of Queer were inexorably tied to the major horrific event of his life, which happened shortly afterwards — the ‘accidental shooting’ of his wife, Joan, during a drunken game of William Tell. As the event happened in Mexico, Burroughs was able to pull strings to beat the murder charge, but nonetheless it was entirely shattering to his life and world view. He concluded that sinister forces of possession lay behind the shooting — Burroughs was a total believer in the magical and occult — and he later named the entity responsible as the ‘Ugly Spirit’. Using his novelist’s imagination, he went to make the ‘appalling conclusion’ that he would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and his oeuvre consisted of a struggle to fight the forces of possession and parasitism in all their forms. In this way the cornerstone of the myth was cemented into place.

It was expanded upon by Ted Morgan in his biography Literary Outlaw, first published in 1987 when Burroughs was seventy-three and established as the grand old man of American counterculture. The very title summed up how Burroughs was perceived: as a man of letters who was nonetheless a Jesse James or John Dillinger kind of folk-hero figure, having constant run-ins with the law over drugs and gun play. Then filmmaker David Cronenberg took up the torch, producing his version of Naked Lunch, which was not a film of the book but a cockamamie mash-up of several of Burroughs’s novels plus details from the biography, again making the shooting of Joan a central event. What was happening inexorably was that a mythic version of Burroughs’s life was coming to predominate over what he actually wrote.

Peter Weller as ‘Bill Lee’ with Mugwump friend in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch ©Optimum Releasing.

Barry Miles says as much at the beginning of his 1992 work El Hombre Invisible — ‘It was the idea of Burroughs that appealed, not the man’ — and indeed though he dressed and looked like an undertaker, he still radiated an unfakeable sense of hipness and cool that was widely appreciated. In literature, he strongly influenced the New Worlds and cyberpunk science fiction movements, but his influence on rock music was equally significant, with David Bowie, Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Donald Fagen, Daevid Allen and later Kurt Cobain all paying homage. He has also appeared as a Burroughs-like character in several fiction films, most notably playing an old junky sage in Drugstore Cowboy. Burroughs’s whole world, his imagery and the concept of ‘Burroughsian’ became large in the ’90s zeitgeist and beyond.

Now at the centenary of his birth, seventeen years after his death, a new biography feels timely, and Miles draws on all the previous material — including Ted Morgan’s original interview tapes with Burroughs — and supplements them with the extensive more recent research done by Burroughs’s companion and manager James Grauherholz, the work of prominent Burroughs chronicler Victor Bockris and scores of other sources. Naturally enough though, he begins with that Introduction to Queer and details its corollary, a 1992 exorcism ceremony performed by a Navajo shaman. It proved to be an extra difficult case for the shaman, but Burroughs got the result he was seeking, saying that the atavistic ceremony did more for him than years of Western-style psychoanalysis. Miles makes this story of Burroughs’s struggle the thread of his biography.

William S. Burroughs I (Public Domain).

Burroughs came from a very wealthy St Louis family — his grandfather, another madcap genius also called William Burroughs, invented the adding machine in 1886, a forerunner of the computer which spawned a business equipment empire.

The young Burroughs apparently suffered some childhood trauma at the hands of his nurse, the precise nature of which remained obscure despite deep psychoanalysis, but was probably sexual in nature. He grew up feeling alienated and out of kilter with his privileged background, due in part to his homosexuality and a streak of recklessness that manifested in criminal behaviour. He developed obsessive crushes on handsome young men and had run-ins with the law that required his parents to bail him out — a pattern that persisted throughout most of his life.

Nonetheless he graduated in English Literature from Harvard and then began a peripatetic existence, never staying anywhere too long, which again became part of the consistent pattern. As he says in Junkie, he made contact with the ‘international queer set’, and that frame of reference was the guiding light for his movements around pre-war Europe and later Mexico, Tangier, Paris and London, always some place where boys were readily available and drugs easy to come by.

Clearly an ‘addictive personality’ when it came to sex, alcohol or tobacco, he found the apotheosis of this tendency in his addiction to opiates, and despite numerous cures and sometimes lengthy spells off the junk, Burroughs was a lifelong addict, ending his days on maintenance doses of methadone. But the double-edged relationship with the bliss of the kick and the horrors of withdrawal gave him a framework within which to process his paranoid version of reality and so develop as an experimental writer. The kick was everything for Burroughs, be it sexual or related to any and every kind of drug activity or magically-tinged artistic endeavour.

Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and others, Tangier ©Allen Ginsberg LLC, 2013. Creative Commons.

He chanced to meet the young Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University, and as an older man he became a mentor figure to them and eventually the trio formed a whole new literary and cultural movement. Kerouac’s determination as a writer inspired the then more lackadaisical Burroughs, and he did duty as one of Kerouac’s ‘characters’, showing up in On the Road, Doctor Sax and Desolation Angels. Burroughs’s tendency for obsessive fixations turned towards Ginsberg and the two of them had a most complicated affair, doomed because Burroughs wasn’t Ginsberg’s type, though their important literary liaison, with Ginsberg acting as muse, editor and agent for Burroughs, survived the turmoil.

The rise to fame of Burroughs and his friends, the publication of Naked Lunch and the establishment of the Beats as countercultural icons is a well known story, and Miles enhances it by adding copious detail and many pieces of insider information, so that we feel we know the subject all too intimately. Burroughs’ extensive network of friends, lovers and literary contacts, stretching across America, Europe and North Africa, is precisely traced, as are the ups and downs of his junk addiction and the ever eclectic use of other drugs. Having plumbed the visionary secrets of yagé in South America, he went on to Eukodol in Tangier — in his opinion the best and most habit-forming junk ever. When it came to kick, Burroughs wasn’t fussy.

The same could be said of Burroughs’ pursuit of young men, often natives of whatever foreign parts he was visiting, and who were in many cases hustlers or rent boys, motivated by money, though several of these relationships were long term and seemingly involved genuine affection. Burroughs was also a classic American ‘gun nut’, displaying a positively fetishistic regard for firearms, and Miles playfully suggests this may be due to him having a somewhat smallish penis. Even as an old man living in Kansas, he surrounded himself with guns, did regular shooting practice, slept with a .38 under his pillow and never went out unless armed to the teeth (legal in Kansas). Clearly the paranoia that had stalked him all of his life never let go.

As regards interpersonal relationships and collaborations, they were very important to Burroughs and were sometimes but not always sexual into the bargain. Apart from Ginsberg, his most significant collaborator was the artist Brion Gysin, with whom he became friendly in Paris in the ’60s. Gysin was also gay but there was never anything sexual between the two. What Gysin did that was hugely significant was to discover the famed cut-up technique by the fortuitous accident of slicing through layers of newspaper whilst preparing mounts for drawings. When Burroughs learnt of this he became entranced and the two commenced experiments that would take up several years, produce the three novels following Naked Lunch (which doesn’t use cut-ups, contrary to popular belief), and also extend into every area of Burroughs’s psyche — he ‘cut up’ everything, including personal relationships, such as his one with Ginsberg, much to the latter’s consternation!

Gysin was also an exponent of the occult and in particular an expert on Moroccan magic, secrets of which he imparted to Burroughs. They had scrying and mirror-gazing sessions at the Beat Hotel that yielded hair-raising results, and Burroughs eventually combined cut-ups and magic in a bizarre fusion that was seemingly effective. His method was to take photographs and make tape recordings in targeted places and then play them back in situ, subverting space-time, as he saw it, and thereby causing troublesome incidents. After falling out with the Scientologists, he launched an attack on their Bloomsbury headquarters and shortly afterwards they decamped to Tottenham Court Road. Next thing, Burroughs similarly attacked the Moka Bar in Soho, where he’d received rudeness and bad service, and after several recording sessions the business began to collapse and eventually closed down. Burroughs used the incident in The Place of Dead Roads, his penultimate major work.

As regards Burroughs’s family relationships, the picture Miles paints is highly unpretty, one of self-centred insouciance towards his parents, brother and long-term lovers, such as the British mathematician Ian Somerville. Notwithstanding Burroughs’s defence of supernatural possession as the reason he shot his wife, Joan, the act clearly gave him what he wanted: freedom to be the rootless, gay, promiscuous, drug-using writer that we know. But the impact on his children was understandably devastating, and as before he relied upon his own mother and father to clear up the mess and take responsibility.

Burroughs and Joan’s son, Billy, and Joan’s daughter Julie from a previous liaison were split up, never to see one another again. Billy was brought up by his grandparents in St Louis and only saw Burroughs very occasionally; as an adult he became a writer, published two novels, but with two addicts for parents, he had serious alcohol and substance abuse problems, and eventually died in his thirties, having earlier had a liver transplant in the course of his decline. Burroughs and his adult son couldn’t find reconciliation, and Burroughs never fathomed how by killing Billy’s mother and then neglecting him he’d ruined Billy’s life.

Patti Smith, Ginsberg and Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart 1977. ©Marcelo Noah. Creative Commons.

Burroughs’s later career as a major celebrity reads like a who’s-who of high art glitterati, including Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, Tennessee Williams, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Rudolf Nureyev, the Beatles, the Stones and many others in the music world. When Burroughs returned to live back in America permanently, in 1974, a third major collaborator entered his life, James Grauherholz, then a twenty-year-old starry-eyed fan come to sit at the feet of the master. Of course Burroughs seduced him, but after a brief affair they rebased their relationship with Grauherholz becoming Burroughs’s secretary, companion and later carer. He took on the role of surrogate son, which lasted till Burroughs’s death and beyond. As Ginsberg had done before, Grauherholz helped him enormously with organising his writing, public appearances and managing his fame and life. The new information he has contributed to the biography is one of its major strengths.

In older age Burroughs moved with Grauherholz to Kansas, the latter’s home state. He swapped his affection for boys with a love of cats, which of course he regarded as familiars, and he also turned from writing to various forms of action painting, following Gysin’s lead, and was very successful as an artist. And his eccentric beliefs and behaviours didn’t abate with age. He became convinced of the reality of alien abductions, and after studying case histories also concluded that the aliens’ prime motivation was sexual. Wishing to be abducted and presumably have intercourse with aliens himself, Burroughs advertised his readiness by having his lawn mowed to manifest the shape of a giant erect penis to the heavens. Surprisingly he found no takers in the alien world!

William Burroughs in 1983. Creative Commons.

Considering the massive abuse his body underwent due to addiction and alcoholism, it’s remarkable that he lived to the age of eighty-three, finally succumbing to heart failure. His long life was utterly unique in every way, detail and nuance, and Barry Miles’s biography can only further enhance his still growing reputation as a preeminent twentieth century writer and figure. Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw is a terrific biography and a tough act to follow, but Miles succeeds in adding many more significant layers and slants to the Burroughs legend. It is a fluent read, letting us into every secret and also adroitly relating episodes of the life to the work, but without overly dwelling on the detail of the work. For this is a book about the man, a highly flawed genius, who stands with Joyce, Proust, Beckett, Borges and Nabokov as one of the most important writers in the modernist/postmodernist idiom, and without doubt is the greatest drug-orientated writer who ever lived.